Focus on Photographers — Catherine Karnow

Pictureline sat down with the award-winning National Geographic photographer Catherine Karnow to discuss her love of photography and what it's like working as a photojournalist on assignment around the world. Born and raised in Hong Kong, the San Francisco-based photographer seems destined to have travel and photojournalism at the center of her life. Catherine has covered Australian Aborigines; Bombay film stars; victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam; Russian "Old Believers" in Alaska; Greenwich, Connecticut high society; and an Albanian farm family. In 1994, she was the only non-Vietnamese photo-journalist to accompany General Giap on his historic first return to the forest encampment in the northern Vietnam highlands from which he plotted the battle of Dien Bien Phu. She also gained unprecedented access to Prince Charles for her 2006 National Geographic feature, "Not Your Typical Radical."

Her work appears in National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler, Smithsonian, French & German GEO and other international publications. She has also participated in several Day in the Life series, Passage to Vietnam, and Women in the Material World. Catherine Karnow is known for her vibrant, emotional, and sensitive style of photographing people.

You live in San Francisco. Is that where you were born and raised?
Actually I was born and raised in Hong Kong. My father was the bureau chief for Time-Life and then the foreign correspondent for the Washington Post. He covered Communist China and the Vietnam War. I lived in Hong Kong for ten years. We lived in Stanley Village, which, at that time, was a small Chinese fishing village. It was normal for me at a very young age to walk to the village by myself and be solely around Chinese people.

When did you develop an interest in photography and what made you decide to be a professional photographer?
I took a class in high school and was blessed to have an extraordinary teacher who really knew photography—the history, the genres—and the way she taught has stayed with me to this day. She was gifted in being able to see your strengths, your vision, and to guide you to express that in a profound way. In high school, I used to work in the summers in Paris and London, and I would shoot all over the city after work every day. I was obsessed with photography, and I was lucky that my parents supported me. I knew I wanted to be a photographer the rest of my life.

Everyone wants the job of being a National Geographic photographer. What is it really like?
It is extremely hard work, and you are never home, but I wouldnt trade it for anything. My editors are wonderful and are the few clients who really understand what it takes to get amazing photos. It takes time and access.

What is the secret to your success?
First, I am passionate. I still love photography thirty years later just as much as I ever have. I always strive to exceed the expectations of my clients by working really hard and always going the extra mile. Success also depends on good marketing and business savvy. You have to be great to work with. I have clients who cut off professional relationships with photographers because those photographers weren't dependable and considerate. I also think you have to be a good writer to be able to express thoughts and ideas properly and in a compelling way.

Where do you love to shoot? Is there any place that you back to again and again?
I have been shooting in Vietnam for twenty-one years and return back at least once every two years. I first went to Vietnam in 1990 when it was extremely poor and very quiet. The country changes so fast. Now Saigon is like any big bustling Asian city, but I am fascinated by their history and our connection to Vietnam. I also love the people. They are kind, resilient, nostalgic, hard-working, and forgiving. Plus they love photography and photojournalists!

What would be your dream assignment?
My dream is to do a book on food production in India and spend time in about eight different regions, like the mountains, the sea, the North and the South, and shoot the history, culture and ways all about food. I love curry!

You also lecture and teach. Why, and what is it about teaching that you like?
Teaching and lecturing is an extension of my love for photography. For so many years I just worked solo and gathered all this experience and ideas about all aspects of photography. Since I started to teach a few years ago, I have found it fascinating to articulate those ideas and to communicate them. I can see how excited students get when they have those "aha" moments and feel transformed. This happens in every workshop I give.

Tell me about your Italy workshop; how is that different from your other workshops?
I give many workshops for National Geographic, specifically the San Francisco Weekend Workshop. I also give one-day seminars for NG. But a couple years ago, I realized a long-time dream to have my own workshop in Italy. I wanted participants to experience what I do on assignment for National Geographic Traveler magazine. I meet all sorts of amazing people and have so many incredible moments. I wanted to share that. In the Italy workshop, we go in tiny Fiat Cinquecento cars with the owners, and we go in traditional fishing boats on the lake with the fishermen. Nothing we do is staged or touristy. We spend real time with real Italians in perfectly photogenic situations. We eat great food and do yoga, too. Every aspect of the workshop is extremely high quality—the way I would want any experience to be.

What kind of advice would you give an amateur photographer?
The great thing about photography is you can just take your camera and go out in the world, or even in your own neighborhood, and shoot. You don't need anything special at all— just a camera. To the amateur, I would say enjoy and don't forget to take a workshop here and there as it is the best way to improve. You can't really learn to photograph from a textbook.

Any last thoughts?
I am so thankful for digital as this has changed the world of photography in so many wonderful ways. We can see our images as we shoot and share them with people in the moment of shooting. And we can so easily email images to people we meet and photograph. Sharing is really important to me.

To learn more about Catherine and sign up for one of her workshops, visit her website.